Deeyah: The Muslim Madonna

MMW thanks Jehanzeb for the tip!

Meet Deeyah, (real name Deepika) a Pakistani-Norwegian R&B/rock/pop diva who’s been on the music scene for a few years now. Trained in classical South Asian singing, known for her voice and her work to better the lives of women, her talent has been overshadowed by dark controversy along the way. A Pakistani by origin and born in Oslo, Norway, Deeyah began her singing career young. And now she’s making a mark in the music scene. She now lives in the U.S., mainly due to the threats she has faced in Norway and the U.K., where she fled to from Norway.

Why the death threats? In her native Norway where she began her career, many in the Muslim community felt her choosing a career in entertainment and dressing provocatively while performing were un-Islamic for a girl who identifies as Muslim. They felt she was setting a poor example for Muslim girls in the community. Some condemned her, as did the leader of Oslo’s Islamic Cultural Centre. Some went as far as sending her death threats, which this leader saw as wrong but understandable. Death threats, insults, harassment, and even physical attacks were understandable to him, but led her to decide to leave Norway for the U.K, in fear of her life. However, in the U.K. extremists began harassing and threatening to kill her as well, leading her to the US where she is now recording an album to be released this year. Yet, the controversy has not left her, and this controversy has been because she is a Muslim woman revealing her body.

Deeyah is a singer, composer, human rights activist and director. She wears many hats. As a human rights activist she is a staunch supporter of ICAHK the ‘International Campaign Against Honour Killings.’ Additionally, she is a supporter of ASHRAM, a women’s shelter in Birmingham, U.K. She works to promote freedom of expression among artists around the world. Finally, she has also started a project to encourage young Muslim female rappers.

But one may ask, what is so controversial about Deeyah? Although the majority of Deeyah’s music is not about Islam or being Muslim, just being a Muslim woman and scantily clad on screen has been enough to attract the ire of many. It seems she is constantly hounded by religious extremists for bearing skin and dancing provocatively, often with men.

As a result of all this harassment and the anger which she felt Deeyah released a song and video, entitled “What Will It Be,” which does speak of Muslims and what she sees as hypocrisy in the Muslim community. About the video, Deeyah tells us:

My core message in this video is the right of a woman to choose her own path and express herself without the fear of violence or cultural excommunication. This video and song is the first time I have directly addressed the problems I’ve faced being a female Muslim recording artist. After years of being called a “whore,” “devil,” and “bringer of shame” by people who use Islam as their shield, I have decided to let this video speak for me.
In it, you see Deeyah in sexy attire dancing in the streets of Mumbai. During the filming of which she was followed and harassed by Muslim men. Odd, considering Mumbai is home to Bollywood – where women are shown in far skimpier clothing. However, what many deemed most offensive was seeing Deeyah in a burqa walking toward a swimming pool only to take off the burqa at the pool to reveal a bikini clad body. The reason for including this scene Deeyah says is to highlight the hypocrisy of many Muslims in which a scantily clad woman is more offensive than honour killings. Throughout the video, Deeyah has images of women killed for honour projected on her bare back to show her support for those women.

Additionally, in the video and in her interviews she criticizes religiousness based on words not actions and spirituality. From lyrics of “What Will It Be:”

From the land of the free to the jewel of the empire
Does the truth only come from the top of a holy man’s spire?
From three paces back, covered head to toe
Are the rules just for the masses and written just for show

And from an interview she says: “Islam…is very, very, very personal and it has to be honest….If it’s not here (pointing to heart) and you don’t mean it then don’t say it. Don’t claim something and…just show off…”

However, some do say that her message is appropriate, but the way in which she presents it is not. From an article:

Hoda Fahmy, who works with a group that provides education to Muslim women in Canada, says Deeyah’s message is lost along with the singer’s clothing. “A lot of us are working for women’s rights, particularly in the Muslim world. I think we have more self-respect than to dance around naked to make our point,” she said. “It’s unfortunate that she has to use those means, because it’s true — women are not able to speak up in a lot of these countries.”

Point taken (though Deeyah is never naked in her videos). And self-respect is not always portrayed by clothing; there are many ways of spreading the message. Staunch opposition and threats from extremists do help in making one even more determined to fight their fight in the way they deem appropriate. And Deeyah is using her career to raise awareness of an issue – not raising awareness by choosing this career.

It is clear that Islam is in the forefront of Deeyah’s life, whether she wants it to be or not. It is also clear that she has a lot of respect for Islam. Muslims, in her view, are the ones who need to change and are the ones with flaws, not Islam itself. It is unfortunate that her progress and well-being must be hindered by self-righteous extremists who feel entitled to force others to ‘behave.’ Her most controversial video brings to light important and disturbing problems in the Muslim community.

Check out the video which has created the most recent controversy.

“What Will It Be – Deeyahcide Mix”

Deeyah ft. Young Maylay

Who Can Talk About Palestinian Misogyny?
I know, I know, hijab makes you beautiful
Dance Is How I Get Close to God: An Interview with Dancer and Upcoming Actress Isha Farha
Women in Gaza Underrepresented in Talent Shows